Friday, August 27, 2010

Photography Fridays - Manual & White Balance

Welcome back! So far we've covered:
Lesson 1: Aperture Basic Training
Lesson 2 (Part 1): ISO & Shutter Speed

This week, we'll be learning about adjusting your white balance and shooting in Manual (M). Eek!

Before we get started on this evening's post, I want to clarify something:

These lessons are not just for people with fancy schmancy DSLR cameras. You can apply a lot of this stuff to your standard point and shoot cameras. Most point and shoot cameras have action settings which allow you to take pictures with high shutter speeds. Look for a running restroom sign man.

Some point and shoot cameras will even let you decide if the background of your picture should be in or out of focus. It just depends on your camera. My recommendation? Read your manuals! You can take awesome pictures without dropping $1000 on a fancy camera and it's corresponding equipment.

Anyways, let's get on with today's lesson.

Lesson 2 (Part 2): Balancing ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture in Manual with DSLRs

I kind of never got around to the second half of last weeks lesson. Something to do with lack of self control and a ridiculous number of water photos.

Also, part 2 of lesson 2 scared the bejesus out of me. Why? Because it meant shooting in MANUAL!! Excuse me while I faint dead away.

I did read part 2 last week, but I didn't apply it until this week. So, here goes!

When you shoot in manual (M), the camera doesn't make any of the decisions for you. You have to set the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. yourself. So, if the picture turns out terrible, it is completely your own fault. You can't blame Auto. More's the pity...

The trick to shooting in manual (so I'm told) is to balance the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture so that you achieve proper exposure. This is where the exposure meter in your camera becomes your bestest friend. You may even set up a play date with him to play hopscotch after all of this.

When you look through the viewfinder in manual, you will see something approximating this:

You want the little green dash on the exposure meter to be near the "0". If it is in the negative, then your picture will be underexposed. If it is in the positive, then your picture will be overexposed (not that overexposure is always a bad thing).

When shooting in manual, first decide whether shutter speed or aperture is your priority.

So, let's say that I want to take a picture of a runner and need to use a high shutter speed. I would set my shutter speed where I want it. Then I would change the aperture until the little dash on the exposure meter moved to the "0". On the other hand, if my goal was to blur the background of an image, I would set the aperture really low. Then I would change the shutter speed until the dash on the exposure meter was at the "0".

This is how you balance out your shutter speed and aperture while shooting in manual. Finally, you adjust your ISO so that it is at the appropriate setting for the amount of light you have available (low ISO in a bright setting and high ISO in a dim setting).

Am I making any sense?? No?? Color me shocked. In that case, you should probably read lesson 2 part 2 here.

Having learned all of this, I began shooting in manual for the first time in my life yesterday while exploring white balance in lesson 3. Continue below to see the dubious results.

Lesson 3: The Color of Light

Have you ever noticed that when you take pictures of people at different times of the day, they change colors? I guess you didn't realize that all of your friends are chameleons. Too bad. The cat's out of the bag now.

Light contains a variety of color temperatures which range from warm to cool. Here are four pictures taken at different times of the day - sunrise, high noon, an overcast afternoon, and sunset.

See how the time of day gives each of these photos a different color cast? The sunrise photo has a gold/yellow cast to it and the sunset photo has a orange/pink cast to it. Both have very warm color temperatures. The photo taken at noon contains a lot of harsh light and shadows which result from the sun being directly overhead. The photo taken under the overcast sky is very cool color temperature and has more of a blue/green cast to it.

The time of day and lighting drastically impact the look of each of these photos. However, it is possible for the camera to correct for the lighting using something called white balance. The purpose of white balance is to remove the color casts and balance out the color temperature of your photos.

Usually, your camera will be set to AWB or Auto White Balance. All four of the above photos were taken on AWB. Many cameras have other automated settings such as cloudy or shade which you can choose depending on your situation. Here's a standard set of WB settings:

While all of these settings are very helpful, none of them can beat setting the white balance yourself using the "Custom" option. This weeks photography assignment was to fiddle around with the custom white balance setting.

To demonstrate, I intentionally chose a low light situation. I took these pictures at night using the one lamp as my only light source. Since the bulb was tungsten, it created a yellow cast in the room. I took a bunch of pictures and tried out a variety of white balance settings.

AWB has a yellowish cast. Tungsten corrected some of the cast, but still has some yellow to it. However, the Custom WB setting removed the yellow cast and captured the truest colors. So how do you set the custom WB? Using AWB, I took a picture of a piece of white computer paper under the light of the lamp. I made sure the white completely filled up the screen. Here's the stunning and original work of art:

Impressive, I know. Then I went into the menu on my camera, went to the white balance screen and chose the custom option. I set the custom white balance to the picture of the white piece of paper. Then I made sure my white balance was set to "custom" and I took a slew of pictures. They all came out without a color cast!

I know. It says "Custon." I was too lazy to change and reupload the picture again. Will you forgive me?

Of course, this custom setting would only work under this specific lighting situation. If I were in a different situation, I'd have to reset the custom setting.

So, you can use white balance to take your pictures from yellowed.... blinding pasty white and natural. So if you want to appear as you actually do in real life, use your custom white balance! I am now keeping a piece of white paper in my camera bag and you should too.

Another option to the white paper is something called a gray card which is 18% gray and accomplishes the same thing as the piece of paper. It may even do a better job of it, but the paper is cheaper. Though, from what I've read, the gray card is best for adjusting your photos while editing them on the computer.  I don't have one, so I really can't tell you for sure.

That's it for this evening. See you next Friday when we explore the flash.

Read lesson 3 on white balance here. Also, most point and shoot cameras will allow you to fiddle with your white balance. Check your manuals and go to town!


  1. This is fascinating. I realize that I've never manually adjusted white balance, I've just chosen a setting from the camera. I really need to get going on these lessons and catch up. I had the goal to do two this month, and I've done none.

    Shame on me. Thanks for keeping me honest.

    I'm totally amazed by the lamp shot. What a difference.

  2. This is awesome! I've heard people say that you should manually set your white balance but never knew how to do it. I'm totally carrying a piece of white paper around in my purse from now on. I'm so excited to try this out. When I try to take a picture of a room to share on my blog, half the time they are totally yellow, and when I shut off the flash the camera doesn't auto focus...

    Thank you so much for a really easy to understand explanation! I'm so excited to follow your Photography Fridays!


Your comments make my day!!